The little boy inside of me fears that my maternal grandmother will haunt me for this piece. The foodie that I am can’t wait to share it.
From early childhood I was acutely aware of one dish my grandmother hated to prepare, fried chicken. Part of her disdain came from the mess of prep and frying as she had learned to make fried chicken from four different women--her mother, her first mother-in-law’s housekeeper, her second mother-in-law, and her longtime best friend’s nanny. Mostly, I am certain, she was bothered that I had declared at 3 years of age a preference for my other grandmother’s fried chicken (and biscuits)--and I never forgot that taste and crunch despite not seeing Grandma Phillips and her Kentucky home for almost 15 years after my parents’ divorce.
As a young adult, I realized what made Grandma Phillips’ fried chicken so memorable: hints of sage and thyme, in addition to black pepper. My maternal grandmother was quick to apply this knowledge to a trial run of chicken, and she enjoyed the results; however, she continued to avoid making any more.
My fried chicken ideal remained unchanged for over 30 years until an encounter with another grandma half the world away. On my way to the international AIDS conference in Melbourne this summer, I had a brief stay in Seoul, South Korea during which I spent the better part of a day with a US-raised food writer now living there in the land of his birth. Mid-way through our nibbling and drinking across the city, we found ourselves on a lower level of Gyeongdong Market with merchants emerging from their stalls calling to us. “Ignore them,” Daniel instructed. “There’s one place I get fried chicken here, and we’re almost there!”
A quick turn inside a waist-high wall of cooking oil barrels, and we were at our destination. A few small picnic tables formed a dining area to the right and back, while the front left corner, on barely the footprint of a bathtub, held pots of hot oil, tubs for breading chicken, bags of potatoes, and dorm-room refrigerator for drinks. Daniel called an order to the grandmother chef-owner, and in moments two beers and a large bowl of fried chicken and potato wedges appeared before us.
The aroma of non-stop fried goodness was intoxicating. I passed on the opportunity to mix my own dipping sauce from bottles of chili paste, soy, and syrup. The crunchy chicken was mind-blowingly delectable on its own. As I began to nibble my second piece, the owner joined us.
She pointed to her youngest daughter returning with more fresh cleaned chickens -- this was a traditional market, after al l- -and in Korean offered her 19 year old child to me for marriage.
I thanked the mother for the offer and asked if she would show me, instead, how to cook the original KFC, Korean fried chicken.
vegetable or peanut oil (about 4 cups)
3½ pounds (1.6kg) chicken wings, rinsed and drained well
1 teaspoon very finely minced ginger root
3/4 cup potato starch (not potato flour; use corn starch if necessary)
½ teaspoon table or sea salt (you want it fine)
½ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
Cut off the tip of each wing and chop the wing in half. After this is done you should have 24 to 26 pieces. Toss chicken in a bowl with ginger.
Put 2/3 cup potato starch in a bowl. Whisk in the salt and pepper, and dip each wing in the powder to coat it, one by one. Squeeze each wing to press the coating to it tightly.
Add 4 cups of cooking oil in a frying pan or pot (with a roughly 12” diameter bottom). Heat oil to 350F (175C), roughly 12 minutes over medium high heat.
See if the oil’s ready by dipping a test wing into it. If the oil bubbles, it’s hot enough to start frying. Slide the coated wings one by one into the hot oil and cook for about 7 to 8 minutes, turning over a couple times with tongs. You will probably need to fry in 3 or 4 batches.
Take the wings out of the oil and shake them off in a strainer or drain on paper towels. Turn off the heat, and let the wings sit for a few minutes.
Reheat the oil and fry the wings again for another 7 to 8 minutes until they all look golden brown and feel super crunchy through the tongs. Drain cooked wings again and toss gently with sauce as desired.
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 to 4 large dried red chili peppers, seeded, cut crosswise into 1/4 inch pieces (optional)
¼ cup soy sauce
½ cup rice syrup or corn syrup
1 Tbsp white vinegar
1 Tbsp prepared yellow or brown mustard (optional)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp sesame seeds (optional)
Add oil, garlic, pepper pieces to a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir with wooden spoon for 30-60 seconds until aroma is evident. Add soy sauce, syrup, vinegar, mustard and stir gently until the sauce begins to bubble slowly. Allow to bubble 2-3 minutes, remove from heat, and stir in sugar and sesame seeds.
Use promptly for dipping or tossing.